Easing barriers helps us all

Making the world more accessible for the disabled has brought them into the mainstream -- and improved everyone's lives.

LYNNE SLADKY/AP
REINALDO MAIZ WORKS OUT ON A DOCK ROWER AT THE MIAMI BEACH ROWING CLUB.

In the early 1970s, a small group of students at my college formed a movement they called MIGHT, which stood for Mobility Impaired Grappling Hurdles Together. In those days, they were a curiosity, their cause novel. As a cub reporter for the campus newspaper, I interviewed a few members. They had a practical agenda: add ramps for wheelchairs, curb cuts in sidewalks, bathrooms for people with special needs. 

Those accommodations are now commonplace, but in the 1970s barriers to the physical world were everywhere and people with physical or mental disabilities were literally out of sight and out of mind. I remember one of the members of MIGHT who used a wheelchair telling me that he didn’t want pity or charity. His disability, he said, didn’t define him. He was in school for an education. He just needed to be able to navigate the campus as I could. The rest would be up to him.

It took years for governments, public works departments, architects, business owners, and transportation companies to make the world more manageable for disabled people. A huge hurdle was overcome with the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which outlawed workplace discrimination against disabled people and mandated reasonable accommodations for them. 

As in most ways that society has progressed, a combination of empathy, legal force, and self-interest has driven change. The early days of the ADA were about retrofitting, which was disruptive and costly and occasioned much grousing among employers and taxpayers. There are still vast areas of society – private homes and small businesses, for instance – that are inaccessible. But handicap-friendly features are now baked into most new construction, and advances in technology that help disabled people (voice-activated interfaces, adjustable-height desks, magnified views on computer screens) are to everyone’s benefit.

Disability can be lifelong; it can be as temporary as a sprained ankle; it can be age-related. As you’ll see in Lee Lawrence’s Monitor cover story (click here), the baby boom generation, in particular, is paying attention. Bounding up stairs at age 19 isn’t quite the same at 69. And even for the able-bodied, ramps, grab bars, and ergonomic workspaces have been a boon. If you have pulled a suitcase through city streets, tried to muscle a sofa up a set of stairs, or needed some closed-caption help in understanding a TV show, you know what I’m talking about.

President George H.W. Bush, in signing the ADA into law, spoke of giving disabled people “the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.” The costs have not been insignificant, but good and talented people who were once overlooked are now contributing to the workforce and are able to use and enjoy the world despite their disabilities. The American mosaic is richer for that.

Along the way, the world has become easier for everyone to navigate. So it turns out that it’s not just the mobility impaired who have been grappling hurdles. We’ve all been in this together.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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